Sunday, October 4, 2015

Harold Bloom’s–not a simple philosophy

I had modest desires when I ordered this book by Bloom: to read his opinions about poets and poems many of which I don't care for as much as Bloom does.  Perhaps like Helen Vendler, I thought, Bloom will change my mind -- about Hart Crane especially, a poet I have never liked.  I didn't mind starting with Whitman.  I liked him when I was young but "outgrew him" or so I thought.  Perhaps Bloom would disclose beauties that would have me reading him again.  But Bloom here is demonstrating Oscar Wilde's comment to Walt Whitman that "criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography -- ending with a rather shocking bit of self-disclosure.

On page 47 of The Daemon Knows, Bloom quotes six lines from Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,

    In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash'd palings
    Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
    With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
    With every leaf a miracle -- and from this bush in the dooryard,
    With delicate-color'd blossoms and heart-shaped laves of rich green
    A sprig with its flower I break.

Bloom then writes, "Six lines of what might be termed 'plain radiance' finds their only transitive verb in the very last word: 'break.'  Walt breaks the tally, his defining synecdoche, in the sprig of lilac he will throw upon Lincoln's funeral cortege as it slowly departs Union Station in Washington, D.C., to begin a long journey through many cities to rest at last in Springfield, Illinois.
    "Inevitable phrasing -- my criterion for the highest poetry -- is a difficult matter for criticism to expound upon, since 'inevitable' here is itself a trope dependent on aesthetic experience.  In old age, doubtless still infused by Nietzsche-as-geneaologist, I begin to believe in what might be called his poetics of pain.  He taught that memorability was heightened by suffering: a hard doctrine, but akin to Shelley's notion that the sublime persuades us to abandon easier pleasures for more difficult engagements.  In this severe vision the slavery of pleasure yields to what lies beyond the pleasure principle  Is then the inevitability -- for me, anyway -- of Walt's dooryard fronting an old farmhouse and the lilac bush so commonly growing there more of a difficult pleasure than it seems  Is my opinion that this is so an act of knowledge, and in what sense of knowing?
    "Is becoming wise an act of knowledge?  For Nietzsche, the greatest thoughts were the the greatest actions.  Thinking in and through metaphors, Shakespeare gives us persons who act with titanic self-destructiveness, incarnate sublimity:  Lear and Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello, Antony and Coriolanus.  Whitman's metaphors include what John Hollander called his 'hard ordinary words,' terms that are charged by Whitman with an accent entirely his own: among them 'drift,' 'passing,' 'vistas,' 'lilac,' leaf,' 'grass,' 'sea,' 'star,' and many more Keats, Nightingale and Shelley's skylark are not more tropological than Whitman's mockingbird and his hermit thrush.  A poet who equates his soul with the fourfold metaphor of night, death,  the mother, and the sea is thinking figuratively as fiercely as did the Hermeticists and the Kabbalists.
    "Meaning, to be human, starts as memory of a fecund variety of pain.  To inaugurate meaning, rather than merely to repeat it, you cultivate an illness that is oxymoronic, a pathos that is already play.  Falstaff and Walt meet in this arena and find words for that is alive in their hearts.  Against trauma we need Falstaff and Whitman, solar vitalists abounding in desire.  Better than Nietzsche's Zarathustra, they realize a fresh dimension to the primordial poem of mankind, because each creates a fiction of the self that becomes a poem in our eyes.  Meaning is voicing and images we voice become tropes of knowing.  'We can know only what we ourselves made made,' proclaimed Giambattista Vico, the eighteenth-century Neapolitan philosopher, and Falstaff and Walt know the selves they have forged.
    "I recall writing, long ago, that any new poem is rather like a little child who has been stationed with a large group of other small children in a playroom, where there a limited number of toys and no adult supervision whatsoever.  Those toys are the tricks, turns, and tropes of poetic language, Oscar Wilde's 'beautiful untrue things' that save the imagination from falling into 'careless habits of accuracy.'  Oscar, who worshiped and twice visited Walt during an American tour, charmingly termed criticism 'the only civilized form of autobiography.'  I have aged not, alas, into Wilde's wit but into a firm conviction that true criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir.
    "Poets and critics alike seek to convert opinion into knowledge, but this means opinion in the legal and not the public sense.  What is it you know when you recognize a voice?  Hart Crane's extraordinary images of voice, whether a broken tower or a vaulting bridge, undo my expectations, even after more than seventy years of reading and knowing him.  At eighty-four I lie awake at night, after  first sleep, and murmur Crane, Whitman, and Shakespeare to myself, seeking comfort through continuity, as grand voices somehow hold off the permanent darkness that gathers through it does not fall.  Frequently, I modulate to Stevens:
    'Likewise to say of the evening star,
    The most ancient light in the most ancient sky,
    That it is wholly an inner light, that it shines
    From the sleepy bosom of the real, re-creates,
    Searches a possible for its possibleness.'"

Comment:  I don't believe I've ever found comfort murmuring other poet's poetry to myself as I tried to sleep.   If poetic thoughts come to me I'll usually get up and write something -- get it out there so it isn't hounding me.  But Bloom is a critic and not a poet so he is different.  I was here reminded of a book I read ages ago, could have been a Dutch novel, about a wealthy aesthete who titillated himself with newer and more provocative pleasures, perfumes for example that he would flood his room with.  But in his case each pleasure grew old and tiresome so he would have to seek something new.  Bloom isn't like that.  He has his favorite poets and poems which he meditates on as he goes to sleep.  Perhaps when he was younger he wanted to read them all, as he seems to have done before writing the The Western Canon, published in 1994.  Now here he is 20 years later settling down with his favorites poets and poems: These that inspire in Bloom admiration for their grandeur and beauty -- and, because Bloom is more than a little bit of a philosopher, their sublimity.

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